The meaning of the dream symbol: Journey

1. A journey may express a need or desire to escape from your present situation: external constraints or inner conflict. But dream journeys usually have a destination (see 2 and 3 below).

2. Is it a journey to a sacred place? Psychologically speaking, this may mean either that you are now aware of your true self, as something not yet achieved but to be kept in mind always as the overriding goal; or, if the place is a sacred well or place of healing, that you now feel the need for psychic healing and wholeness.

3. Is the destination not reached? Can't you find the place although you’ve been before? The dream may be telling you that, although you may have caught fleeting glimpses of your true self, you have not let it become what it ought to be.

4. A voyage of discovery to unknown - previously unvisited - lands probably means your unconscious is inviting you to make its acquaintance. The sea is a common symbol of the unconscious.

5. Journeying with a companion (if of the same sex, your alter ego; if of the opposite sex, your anima/animus) or without one in unfamiliar territory and with feelings of terror and unpredictableness is an allegory of your own progress towards the fulfilling of your 'destiny', coming to terms with your own unconscious 'shadow', healing inner conflicts and expanding towards wholeness. Bits of that allegorical journey probably appear in most of your dreams, and will go on doing so.

6. The journey in the dream may tell you what is actually happening in your life at present, or - less often - how you ought to live. For example, if the journey is a spiral climb and, near the summit, you get confused by the signposts, so that you never reach your destination, this is probably a reflection of a recurring pattern in your life. In such a case, you might find it helpful to relive the dream, only this time looking out for different options you might take at this or that juncture in the dream story. This could help build up a more positive and effective pattern of behaviour in your life.


Rich in symbolism though journeys may be, this wealth is condensed into the quest for truth, peace or immortality, and into the search for and discovery of a spiritual centre, voyaging, crossing rivers and looking for islands are discussed under their appropriate headings. Chinese journeys were expeditions either to the Isles of the Immortals, an Eden in the east which corresponded to the paradisal state, or to Mount Kun-Lun, the centre and World Axis. The islands are Ho-chu (Li Tzu ch. 2) and Chuche, visited by Yoa (Chuang Tzu ch. 1), both corresponding to the primordial centre, but especially the ‘five great islands’, Pong-lai (Li Tzu ch. 5) to which Ch’in-che Huang-ti and later the Han Emperor Wu sent abortive expeditions. All failed, states the Pao-p’u Tzu, because there was no qualified spiritual pilot, or because, as Li Chao Wong taught, Pong-lai can only be reached after a spiritual preparation which enables the seeker to ‘rise up to Heaven’. Other journeys include those of Hoan Chen-tai and Princess Miao-chu to the Island of Truth and of Ch’u-yuan to the City of Purity, which was the primordial centre. Huang Ti reached Mount K’ong-tong - a tree and therefore an axial symbol - and may even have attained Mount Kun-Lun itself. Ch’u-yuan’s guide, the Immortal Ch’e-song Tzu, reached it easily, as did the Chou Emperor, Mu. However, both Chang-liang and Chang Ch’ien failed, since the centre of the Earth had become inaccessible. In fact, such journeys only reach their objectives within the individual: journeys which are an escape from self always fail.

Chalices and books also symbolize this inaccessible centre, and quests for them produce the wealth of adventure in the story of the Grail or in the Si-yu Chi. Since these are quests for knowledge, they correspond to the journeys of Aeneas, Odysseus, Dante, Christian Rosenkreuz or Nicholas Flamel, or of the Indian Prince in the Acts of Thomas. Without departing from this line of thought, journeys are also the series of ordeals which prepare the candidate for initiation and are to be found in the Ancient Greek Mysteries, in Freemasonry and in Chinese secret societies. Like a spiritual progress, the journey - occurring in Buddhism in the shape of ways, vehicles and ‘crossings’ - is often expressed in terms of movement along the World Axis. This is true of Dante’s journey. The Prophet Muhammad was taken up to Heaven during his mi'raj and Chinese tradition holds that the same was true of Chao Chien-tzu and K’i, sons of Yu the Great. While the quest for the central mountain may be progression towards the axis, its ascent is the equivalent of an ascent into Heaven. The same is often true of crossing bridges.

Advancing towards the centre is often expressed in terms of a quest for the Promised Land as well as by pilgrimage. Such was the Exodus from the Land of Egypt, the crossing of the Wilderness and that of the Red Sea, which Origen expressly describes as stages in spiritual development. De Saint-Martin observes that Jethro’s Well, beside which Moses halted, was a secondary spiritual centre. Other journeys are Avicenna’s (Ibn Sina’s) Tale of the Bird and Suhrawardi’s Tale of the Western Exile and Letter from the Towers, where both define their quest as that for their original and not their earthly homeland. Al salik, the Traveller, is a title conferred by some Muslim brotherhoods. ‘But who is that traveller?’ Shabistari asked. ‘Even he who turns his face towards the Prophet... Journey within thy self’, he added. And it is within the self that the individual attains the Great Peace (tai-ping) of the Chinese, Hindu tranquillity, the City of Truth of St Isaac of Nineveh and, lastly, the Grail as well.

The symbolic journey is often undertaken after death, the best-known instances being those recorded in Ancient Egyptian or Tibetan books of the dead. However, the same motif recurs in such very different parts of the world as northern Vietnam (Black Thais) and Central America (Maya). Here again we are clearly concerned with the progress of the soul through states which enlarge those of its manifestation in human form - the superhuman goal is still to be achieved.

Literature throughout the world presents many different examples of journeys which, without having the scope of traditional symbol, are intended to have some degree of significance - be it merely satirical or morally instructive - but which are, nevertheless, quests for truth. Instances of these would include Rabelais’s Pantagruel and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, as well as many works of Japanese literature such as the Utsubo-monogatari or the Wasobyoe.

An utterly different point of view is presented by ‘the longest journey in the world’ which, according to the Digha-nikaya, is the unbroken chain of cause and effect to which the individual is condemned unless enlightened to the ‘Four Noble Truths’ of Buddhism.

In dreams and legends, journeys under the Earth’s surface denote entry into the esoteric realm; those through air and sky, entry into the exoteric realm. A journey up the side of a mountain symbolizes effort; down, relaxation.

Journeys give expression to a deep-seated desire for internal change and a need for a fresh range of experience rather than change of location. According to Jung, they are evidence of a lack of satisfaction, which prompts the search for and discovery of new horizons. Although Jung may suggest that the longing for travel may be the quest for the ‘lost’ mother, Cirlot rightly observes that it could as easily be escape from the mother. In fact we should remember that this word comprises two aspects - the generous and the possessive.

Journeys to the Underworld denote either a return to one’s beginnings, as in the Aeneid Book VI, or, in current interpretation, a descent into the unconscious. Both cases perhaps betray a need for self-justification, the Ancient Romans wishing to claim noble descent from dead heroes and moderns trying to find the causes of their behaviour. A journey to the Underworld may more often be regarded as self-defensive or self-justificatory, rather than self-punitive.

Other journeys, such as those of Odysseus, Herakles (Hercules), Menelaus, Sinbad or so many others have been interpreted as quests on the psychic and mystic planes. Throughout literature, journeys symbolize adventure and quest, whether wealth or simply knowledge, the material or the spiritual are at the end of them. But this quest is at bottom no more than a search for and, more often, a flight from one’s self. ‘True travellers’, Baudelaire wrote, ‘are those who set out for the sake of setting out.’ Never satisfied, their constant dream is of the more or less inaccessible unknown and they never find what they have been trying to escape - themselves.

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